With Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan and the protective fence it will be "easier for Israel to defend itself," said Dr. Arnon Soffer, an informal advisor to Sharon, who spoke to a packed crowd of over 150 people at the Mittleman Jewish community Center, March 29. "I'm very optimistic. Over the last half of the year, I've started to smile."
His smile has been a long time coming. "For 20 years I have been shouting like the prophet Jeremiah about the destruction of Israel -€" if we don't withdraw from the territories, (Jews) will be a minority."
Soffer began his talk about whether Israel will be better off under the Disengagement Plan with an overview of demographics, "an important issue for Israel" and one that became controversial in the last two months.
From Soffer's perspective, Jews are "heading to be a minority by sustaining zero population growth" in Israel, while the Arabs have a burgeoning birthrate. "Time is in favor of the Palestinians. Therefore, they are not in a hurry to make any agreements. In 1939, Jews waited for G-d to come. He never came. This time we can't wait." Israel has to do something.
On top of the differences in birthrates about 300,000 Arabs enter the country illegally every year. He compared that figure to the "two million illegal aliens that cross into the U.S. from Mexico annually. Even if half a million are sent back each year, the U.S. can absorb those numbers for the next 50 years and not notice it," he said. However, the increase of 300,000 Arabs yearly in Israel will greatly impact the population.
Also, Israel absorbed one million Russians. Half of those immigrants are not Jewish. "They may become Jewish," but for now they are not, said Soffer, who is the chair of the Geo-Strategy at the University of Haifa, a professor of geography at Israel's National Defense College and a former visiting professor at Portland State University. For the past 25 years he has been an advisor to the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Foreign Ministry. He and his wife were in Portland visiting friends. They returned to Israel on April 3.
Because of the high Arab-Israeli birthrates, as well as the other factors, Soffer predicts that by 2020 Jews in Israel will be a minority-€”only 38 percent of the population (down from 76 percent in 2003). "We're losing the Jewish State." Also, the immigrants entering Israel-€”whether legally or not-€”are poor. If Israel continues in the direction it's going, he said, it is heading toward becoming a third world country. It is the third-most-densely populated in the world.
Soffer "met with the settlers and (Israeli Defense Forces) military officers. It was very difficult for everyone to swallow the (population) figures."
Two months ago "radical right-wingers in America and Israeli settlers" came up with their own population statistics. Basing their claim on the Population Reference Bureau's (in Washington, D.C.) statistics, this group asserts that there are 1-½ million fewer Arabs in Israel. Following this logic, Israeli "Jews are not under a threat of being a minority. Therefore, Israel does not need to disengage," Soffer said.
An audience member, who appeared to have come with a written statement, challenged Soffer with the PRB statistics.
"Her figures are nonsense," Soffer said after the lecture. This group's statistics are a "fabrication. They are saying they do not trust either the IDF census or the 1997 Palestinian census. The PRB information is calculated on the number of live hospital births. Half of the Arab babies are born at home." So in this instance, "you can't trust hospital figures."
When Israel disengages from Gaza, with its 1 million Arabs, the balance of the population will change, he said. "We don't want to waste time and money on Gaza." Fifty Jewish settlements will be dismantled. Soffer expects "violence without shooting" from the settlers, when this happens.
With the constructed protective fence around Jerusalem there has been "zero penetration (by terrorists) and the economy is taking off again." When completed, the fence will be 660 kilometers long.
A woman in the audience said that she made Aliyah and felt safer in Israel with the fence. It gave her "a sense of security," she said.
A young, bearded man, identifying himself as a Palestinian, said that with the security checkpoints in Israel he can't travel what here would be the distance "from Beaverton to Portland."
Soffer responded, "We can be good neighbors, even with a wall. We can't solve the whole world's problems, just those of Israel."
The soft-spoken Palestinian said, "I feel sorry for both sides. The wall won't solve the problem."
"Without a fence," said Soffer, "Israel has no chance to be a good neighbor. We say it should be high enough so eagles can't fly over."
After the lecture Soffer said, "I convinced Sharon that the next battle (in Israel) is quality of life, which is the reason for the disengagement.
"Our quality of life has to change, or we will lose our youth. We will survive only as a first-world country with quality of life equal to New York or Portland. We're losing Jerusalem, because of the quality of life." Between 1991 and 2001, 90,000 Jews left Jerusalem. Arabs took their place.
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